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Born to run? Does it look that way?

Even in this modern word where every phone is a video camera seeing yourself cycling, or running, or swimming (especially swimming) can be quite a revelation.  And quite a realisation.  Normally a realisation that you don’t look quite like you thought that you do.

Once you’re past the realisation bit things become a little more tricky.  The first problem is working out what it is that’s ‘wrong’.  And that’s easy compared with working out how to change it.   If you’re doing something wrong several times a minute for hours at a time you can’t normally put it right just by thinking about it. Even if you can do it temporarily you’ll lapse as soon as you stop concentrating.

This is where the coach comes in.  As a coach I don’t normally need video to analyse running, swimming or cycling technique: they’re repeated actions.  Slow motion and freeze frames can be useful for confirming things but generally watching real people move in real time beats watching them on a screen. For me video is useful because I can use it to help people understand what they see when they’re looking at themselves and I can show them what I see when I watch them.

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It’s powerful stuff. People come to see me for bike fits and go away with a whole new appreciation of cycling.  Of course I’m a big believer in the importance of bike fit and setup – but I believe more in the importance of great technique. A good bike setup enables good technique, but does not enforce or ensure it. A bad set up doesn’t always prevent it, but it adds a cost – normally tension of some form.

For running and swimming there’s no contraption to hold you in (or out of) position. That ought to make them easier – but it doesn’t. For many people it makes them much harder.

We all know that swimming is a learned skill – kids go to swimming teachers for swimming sessions, but we tend to assume that running is natural.  Who ever heard of running teachers and running lessons?  We run how we run and we get faster and go further by doing more and becoming fitter.

But why should different people run differently?  We might be different sizes and have different proportionality – but fundamentally we have the same muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and organs.  Gymnasts and divers learn how to somersault and twist; tennis players learn how to serve, smash and volley; cricketers learn how to drive, pull and hook; high jumpers learn the Fosbury Flop. They learn and are coached to make the movement patterns that work best.  If you try to do those skills with the wrong technique they either don’t work at all or the result is… well, how high can You jump?

So why don’t we learn how to run?

Planning to do a Sportive?

Planning to do a Sportive?

Or a ‘Sportif’?

Or a ‘Gran Fondo’?

Something with closed roads perhaps like Ride London or The Tour of Cambridgeshire?

Maybe even the Etape du Tour?

Put another way, are you planing to ride in close proximity to a lot of other cyclists?  Does that thought fill you with excitement, trepidation or sheer terror?  Will you be trying to ride as close to the people in front as you can, trying to keep your distance or trying to get past?

I’d expect anyone new to cycling to feel pretty apprehensive, but for a long time I was surprised by the number of experienced, long-time cyclists who came to me for fittings and told me that they actually felt pretty nervous with other riders close round. They didn’t tell me in the sense that they though it was a problem – far from it.  Typically it cropped up once we started to talk about the way they had their bikes set up.

“Do you find that your hands go numb after a while?”

“Do your shoulders and neck start to ache at all?”

“Do you use the drops much?  Can you reach the brakes OK on the drops?”

“Do your quads burn when you’re riding uphill?”

“Do you find yourself sliding towards the front of the saddle?”

“Do you find that your bike veers to the side when you take one hand off the bars? – maybe when you reach for your bottle, or your pockets…”

I started to realise that the concept of ‘experience’ having any relationship to ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ was often non-existent.  People tend to ride their bikes how they came or how they always have.  Many people, for example, position new cleats precisely where the previous cleats were, meticulously preserving a setup that was pretty much random in the first place.

One problem with a poorly set up bike is that its handling is likely to be twitchy.  And twitchiness is particularly evident when there are other riders or traffic around, especially at speed.  The difference that being ‘experienced’ makes is, perversely, that experienced riders seem more likely to assume that twitchy is normal and be less phased by it than inexperienced riders.   Instead of thinking ‘this can’t be right’ they think ‘this is what a thoroughbred racing bike is like’.

I’ve ranted before about the steep geometry and limited adjustability of modern bikes.  I’m not really sure where the blame lies, if indeed any single party is to blame.  Manufacturers certainly seem to want their bikes to rocket forwards as soon as you press on the pedals – and then they’ll claim that the handling is ‘fast’ and ‘direct’ – (and point out that if the ride seems a little harsh you could upgrade to a model with vibration damping features).   Sure, I want my bike to respond quickly when I ask it to change direction, but I don’t want it to change direction otherwise – especially if I’m trying to get at my lunch!

Steering geometry does have an impact on handling but not nearly as much impact as saddle position.  Likewise frame material has an impact on the amount of road vibration that you feel – but not nearly as much as how your weight is distributed and upon which parts of your anatomy.

I think that the answers to the questions above should be “no”, “no”, “yes & yes”, “no”, “no” and “no”, whatever material your frame is made of.

If your experience is different drop me a line.

The Technique Paradox

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of being coached good technique. An obvious counter to my argument is that some people do very well with little or no technique coaching and some do very well with little or no technique – or at least no technique that most coaches would advocate.

These people have found their own way that works and, though it’s possible that they might have been even better with textbook technique, it’s difficult to justify trying to change a winning formula.

Most people don’t start their sport with excellent coaching. Even those that do rarely get individual coaching until they’re already doing well and standing out. And that’s normally because they’re the ones who are working it out for themselves.  Kids who don’t work a sport out for themselves pretty early on are likely to get disillusioned and give up pretty quickly.  We’ll come back to them later.

Coaching good technique to children is a real challenge.  They don’t often do things just right first time and, as they’re typically in a group environment, it’s difficult to give them one-to-one attention.

Good coaches create challenges, games and exercises to stimulate thought processes and movement patterns.  Kids fortunate enough to be well coached don’t necessarily know it at the time: they’re just having fun. But the things that they’re working out for themselves are more relevant and more useful.   There’s nothing new in this, but the latest buzzwords for describing this type of coaching are ‘constraint led’ and ‘guided discovery’.

But even learning good technique as a child, under the guidance of good coaches, doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually know either much about it or how to coach it yourself. Good athletes often make poor technical coaches because they don’t know how they learned their technique. They just did their sessions and worked hard. So that’s what they assume will work for others

Most coaching in swimming, running and cycling is based on the model of giving exercises to groups of children, seeing which of the children stick with it, and then making them fitter and stronger.

The emergence of triathlon has highlighted the weaknesses of this aspect of coaching.  Triathlon started as a sport for adults – an endurance test between people who were game enough to have a go at sports other than their own.  As triathletes became more serious and sought coaching the coaches who got involved were the people who coached marathon runners and cyclists – endurance coaches: People who set training programmes.

As the sport grew in popularity, and became more competitive, adults who came into it started to realise that they needed more than training programmes – most often they needed to learn how to swim.   Not ‘how to swim’, they could do that, but ‘how to swim’ – like the kids who worked it out for themselves in the first paragraph and spent the next five years banging out 4km before breakfast five days a week.

However the swim coaching community typically couldn’t really help them.  The stuff that it did with kids didn’t work on adults (especially those who hadn’t worked it out for themselves the first time round) and the stuff that it did with its experienced swimmers was mostly physiology and psychology.

My introduction to triathlon coaching was with someone who could already swim but needed to run much faster.  And the situation was much the same:  All of the material and information that we could find on running coaching was physiological – and we didn’t need that.

Today it’s not just adults who take up triathlon.  Kids are coming in who’ve worked out one or two of the disciplines pretty well, but need a bit more help to work out all three.

That old coaching model doesn’t work for triathlon.  Triathletes don’t get disillusioned quite so quickly. They don’t give up. They need coaches who really understand how to coach technique.

Investing for the long term

What’s the line that appears somewhere in every set of tips to improve your performance?  “Get a coach”.  In the worlds of cycling, running and triathlon that tends to mean ‘find someone to sort out your training programme for you’:  Someone to tell you what to do each day and to plan your sessions.  That’s better than simply following a standard training plan, the thinking goes, because the plan is customised for you and you alone.  Or at least there is someone who should know what they’re doing taking charge.

I’ve seen and heard enough of this type of remote correspondence coaching to be a bit skeptical.  It’s quite easy to create a training plan, especially with few constraints – but a plan like this is only ever going to be fitness plan.  That’s OK, maybe, if your limiting factor is fitness – but  what if the limiting factor is not fitness?  That might not be a problem, of course, but if you’re hiring a coach as an investment surely you want more than a temporary boost.

Fitness is temporary.  There are certainly adaptations from long-term training that take a long time to disappear, but in essence your fitness is a function of the training that you’ve been doing recently.  If you know how to get fit and stay fit you don’t need to worry too much about losing fitness because you can get it back.  If that were not the case any injury would be career ending.  The best athletes and coaches know how to hit peak fitness at key times and don’t waste unnecessary energy being fitter than they need to be at other times.  What they make sure they don’t lose, however, is their technique.

The young triathletes that I coach probably get a bit sick of me putting on my best pantomime voice to ask “What does practise make?” and they know that the answer that I’m looking for is not “perfect” but “permanent”.  Practise makes perfect only if what you practise is perfect.  The downside of practising is that the more you do something, and the more natural it becomes, the more difficult it is to change.   The upside is that once you’ve learned good technique you have it for good.

This was really brought home to me a couple of years ago when I inherited my family piano.  I enjoyed playing it as a child and, though I stopped having lessons soon after I started, I practised a few pieces that I liked and learned to play them quite well.  Then I left home and didn’t play at all for nearly 30 years.  After all that time I sat in front of it …and didn’t know where to start.  So I dug out my first piano book and started at page one.  An hour or so later I’d gone right the way through all of the exercises and played every piece.  So I went through a few more.  In a nutshell I could play all of the pieces that I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything that I hadn’t played before.  The things that I’d practised all those years ago were still tucked away in my memory – a little dusty, perhaps, but pretty much fully intact.  

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Next I decided to try to learn a few new pieces.  Following the teachings of Joy Lisney I decided to learn them well enough to play without the music in front of me.  Joy does this stuff for a living and learns entire scores:  It took me weeks to learn my first page.  But now it’s in there and I can find it – and and a few more pages too.  After a few minutes sitting at the piano I put them together in my mind and play them through.  It seems I can still learn new things at 50.

Swimming, cycling and running technique is much the same.  Learn it well and it’s with you for ever.  Learning it from scratch is relatively easy:  Kid’s stuff – literally.  Learning by modifying your existing deeply entrenched technique is, for most people, extremely difficult – difficult to the point that it might even be worth learning something completely new from scratch alongside and thinking of old technique and new technique as different activities.

You’ve probably come across drills:  single arm drills for swimming, single leg drills for cycling, butt-flick drills for running…  Drills are the way to learn technique.  Just ‘doing’ them probably won’t work, however – so having them written into your programme by a remote coach probably won’t work either.  Every good drill is the result of a coach’s thought process:  “How do I isolate this particular aspect of technique?”.  To get the benefit of the drill you have to understand it and learn how to do it perfectly.  The process of learning to do the drill properly is as important as repeating it.  Getting it wrong, or not understanding it, could be worse than a waste of time.  Most drills are easier to learn to do properly than ‘full technique’, that’s part of the point, but some drills seem harder.  Those are often the drills that really highlight the subtlety of the activity and mastering them takes your performance to a new level.

You might think that hiring a coach to set your programme is a good investment.  But for long-term returns the best investment might be hiring a coach to help you master technique.

The tension is killing me.

The best* make it look easy.  Or perhaps, more specifically, they make working hard look easy.  There are some exceptions, of course, but in general by the time the very best look stressed, ragged and tense the rest are nowhere to be seen.

Even in non-technical endurance sports like running and cycling, where fitness is king, good technique can still make a big difference.

But what is good technique?  There are no style marks, there is no tariff that rewards the risk takers, and there are no judges.

Fundamentally technique is good if it makes you go faster, saves energy or saves time, though it might do those in indirect ways – for example by saving you from injury, reducing the amount of time that you have to spend training or increasing the time that you can spend training.

In endurance sport (whether you’re doing it competitively or not) good technique also allows you to keep going.  Ideally you want to be limited only by your energy.  In reality you’re quite possibly limited by pain: maybe the pain of lactate build up but often pain in an annoying little muscle in your back, or your arms or your neck.

Lactate pain is ‘good’ pain.  Lactate builds up in muscles which are working hard and there’s nothing that you can do about that.  But in this case you can have too much of a good thing.  If lactate keeps building up you soon tie up …and slow down.  That happens to the best – just watch final of the Olympic 400m on the athletics track.

This is a blog, not a physiology paper, so I’ll stick to simple models.  Lactate is created in muscles which are working hard and is reprocessed in muscles which are relaxed.  If the reprocessing is keeping up with the creation you’re operating below your anaerobic threshold and your limiter is your energy store.  The point at which reprocessing fails to keep up is, by definition, the anaerobic threshold.  Above that point, instead of being energy limited, you’re lactate limited.

So the more reprocessing you can do the more lactate you can clear.  And the more lactate you can clear the harder you can work without crossing your threshold.  The best athletes make working hard look easy.  Staying relaxed at high intensity is great technique because it allows you to keep going for longer.

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When you’re running or swimming your movement patterns, and therefore your technique and your ability stay relaxed are entirely down to you: Your skill, your strength, your training, your discipline.  When you’re cycling, however, your movement patterns and your weight distribution are largely determined by the setup of your bike.  If your setup does not allow you to relax when you’re riding you’re going to be lactate limited before you need to be.

A key aspect of a good bike setup is getting rid of unnecessary tension – enabling the best muscles to work hard and the rest to stay relaxed.  There are several ‘sophisticated’ bike fitting systems around that try to fit a computer generated approximation of a skeleton.   It beats me why a good coach or fitter needs a computer generated stick figure on a screen when there’s a real person right there on the bike.  Once the set up is nearly right the final touches are all about movement and muscle activation; about tension and relaxation; about feeling equally good on the drops, the tops and the hoods (or the tribars of course); about understanding how the bike will feel and handle on the road – smooth road and rough road, uphill and downhill, in the wind and with people and maybe traffic around.  Fundamentally bike fitting is about enabling good technique.

 

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* There are some philosophical points about how we might interpret ‘best’ when talking about athletes in this way.  Arguably the best are those with the best physiology – and great physiology allows them to do well with relatively poor technique.  Only when they are close to the top does poor technique impact their ability to win – by which time change is very difficult (both to do and to countenance).  However, performing at the highest level in a competitive environment requires so many aspects to be ‘best’ that physiology alone is now rarely enough.

When it’s time to slow down

When I set people up on their bikes I set them up to hold onto the drops.  I make the point that most of us want to go as fast as we can for the amount of effort that we want to put in.  Even at easy efforts you’ll go faster if you’re more aerodynamic, and what’s the point in having an aerodynamic position if you can’t use it for more than a few minutes at at time?

Of course you can get very aero positions by holding the hoods.  Just as aero and efficient as on the drops.

But a good position on the drops isn’t just about being aero.

It’s by far the best position for stopping and slowing down quickly.  And therefore the best position for descending and cornering fast – as those both involve braking, ideally as late as possible to lose as little speed as possible.

The drops are obviously a good position for braking – assuming that the brakes are set where you can reach them – but why is holding the hoods such a bad position for braking?

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Here goes…

With your hands on the drops you squeeze the brake levers towards the bars.  You use your strong finger (or maybe the strongest two) and you pull perpendicular to the lever and close to the end, where you have a good mechanical advantage.  With your hands on the hoods, however, you can’t actually squeeze the brake levers.  You either have to lever them with your strong fingers or pull them towards the hoods (i.e. with an oblique force rather than a perpendicular one) using your weak fingers.   That might sound a bit convoluted – but the picture above illustrates it quite nicely.  With your hands on the hoods you simply cannot apply much force to the brake levers.  That means you cannot safely allow your speed to build up because you are not in control.  If that does not sound scary, it should.  And if it doesn’t feel scary to you on the bike it can feel pretty scary to those around you.

But that’s not all…

When you do apply the brakes the bike slows down.  Quite quickly – even if you’re holding the hoods.  You, on the other hand, still have the inertia that you had before you applied the brakes so you’ll carry on moving forward unless something slows you down.  It won’t be the saddle (unless it has a deep dip in which case it can slow you down by applying force to your genitals).  Saddles are quite good at stopping you sliding off the back, but the front is smooth and narrow.  So you’re left with your hands and your feet.  Your feet can only help if you can push back on the pedals – or at least on one of them.  You can only do this if your heel is below your toes and your centre of gravity is behind the pedal.  The way that I set people up on their bikes permits this, but a typical Retul fit for example, or a time trial fit does not.  That leaves just your hands and arms to stop you sliding off the front of the saddle when you apply the brakes.

But if your hands are on the hoods and trying to apply the brakes they’re full of tension and the mechanics of your brake squeezing action are tending to lift them and slide them forwards over the hoods!  So now, in addition to a death grip to squeeze the brakes you’re using the same grip to stop yourself shooting over the front of the bike.

I could go on…

With your hands and fingers squeezing the hoods and the levers to both slow the bike and prevent yourself shooting off the front you can’t modulate or control the pressure on the brakes.  Furthermore your bodyweight, with all of its momentum, is pressing heavily on the bars and the front wheel so you can neither control your steering or absorb any road shock through your elbows.  If you hit a bump or a slippery patch you’re likely to bounce or skid.  And if you weren’t in control when you took off what are the chances of you being in control when you land?

Bike fitting and set up isn’t just about aerodynamics and power.  And it isn’t just about comfort and injury prevention.  It’s about control too.